Our family recently got a little smaller, following the passing of my Great Uncle, Norman Raw. Uncle Norman lived to be 100 years old and celebrated the milestone as a guest of Middlesbrough Football Club, who provided the image above. The notice that appeared in his local newspaper can be seen here, while I had the honour of delivering the tribute to him. The text I drafted is below:
It’s a heck of a job, this. I’ve got to try and capture the essence of my Uncle Norman in a few minutes and how can anyone do justice to a man who lived for 100 years and touched so many lives?
If you asked the man himself who should have such a task, he’d get that little twinkle in his eye, sit back in his chair and say something like… “not me, lad!”
He’d mean that, too. Uncle Norman was a gentleman in every sense and not given to ‘blowing his own trumpet’, which is a shame, for his life was extraordinary in all kinds of ways. That’s part of what makes giving the tribute so tricky; we all have our own memories of Norman, so I’m bound to miss something out!
However, for me, it is impossible to think of Uncle Norman without also thinking about his soulmate.
He met the love of his life, Auntie Dorothy, at Night School; she did his maths, he did her geography and they hit it off. In those days, they were keen cyclists and members of the Stockton Wheelers. Norman and Dorothy would meet at Stockton Town Hall at midnight on a Saturday, then decide where they would ride to! Eventually, they were married and their union lasted more than 60 years.
When MS robbed Dorothy of the mobility and strength she had honed during her years as a swimmer and cyclist, Norman was a steadfast carer to her. He held this role for almost a third of their married life together and never once complained because he didn’t see the situation as a problem. He was as devoted to Dorothy as she was to him and took the task in his stride.
Knowing now what I didn’t then, I’m really not surprised that he and Dorothy enjoyed such a full life even after she became reliant on a wheelchair. Everything would have been well-organised; Norman was meticulous in his planning and record-keeping; I discovered that after he passed away.
The paperwork was all ready for handing over to the solicitor; Norman had written everything down, complete with a little note “no insurance policies – SPENT!”. And why not? It was his money, after all!
He had also kept all manner of things, including what I’m convinced is a picture of my Dad as a toddler, sitting behind Norman’s steering wheel. Norman would have taken that picture himself – he always did love a gadget, so will have saved up to buy the camera – then treasured the memory.
Uncle Norman and Auntie Dorothy weren’t able to have children, but they doted on the children in their wider family. At this point, I want to mention the incredible bond between Uncle Norman and my daughter, Lilly. The connection between them was special; you would see Norman get a little taller when she entered the room and that familiar twinkle in his eye would spark with just a little bit of mischief. She adored spending time with him and hearing stories from his various adventures. When Lilly was a toddler, Norman would even leave his chair and go down to her level to play.
I also can’t talk about ‘family’ without mentioning Billy the Budgie. Not everyone here had the pleasure of meeting this remarkable bird. Norman taught Billy to speak and answer questions. You could say “Where do you live, Billy” and a tiny copy of Norman’s voice would reply “18 Gilpin House”. Now, this budgie had an ego; when we visited, Billy would fly over to me, perch on my shoulder and tell me “Billy’s gorgeous!” He was like his humans; utterly brilliant and a gentle soul. He was also a bit mad; I remember Billy staying with my Nana so Norman and Dorothy could go on a break of their own. He decided to make a dash for freedom and flew straight into Nana’s bay window. Nana was horrified but Billy sat up, shook his head and demanded to be returned to “18 Gilpin House”!
Then there’s the fact that, sometimes, sharing DNA doesn’t make people a family. Norman was incredibly lucky to have Craig in his life; theirs was a friendship which saw them help each other through illness and loss and blossomed into a deep and unique bond. In Norman’s later years, it was the efforts of Craig and his wife Sue which enabled Uncle Norman to continue to live in Gilpin House. Norman treasured his relationship with Craig and his family and it certainly added both years and happiness to an already long life.
Uncle Norman had other friendships which brought him a lot of joy, particularly after Auntie Dorothy passed away. One particularly important friendship was the relationship he formed with the Henderson family, whom he met on a coach trip to Scotland. When I spoke with Angie Henderson in the days following his passing, she shared an anecdote with me about the first time Norman arranged to dine with Angie and her parents. He was, uncharacteristically, ten minutes late for dinner. When he eventually hurried into the restaurant, he apologised profusely, explaining that he had accidentally gone out of the building through a fire escape and had needed someone to let him back in!
He was good like that, Norman. In fact, his greatest gift to me (and there were many) was that he taught me how to be silly. He first met my eldest child, Lilly, when she was about three months old and the way he held her, pulled faces and used silly voices to make her laugh helped me relax into parenthood. As intense and serious as I am usually, I’ve always found it easily to laugh and joke when I’m in Norman’s company.
It’s also fair to say that I wouldn’t have a degree without his help. When I was working on my final module with the Open University, Uncle Norman was so generous with his time and memories; I interviewed him for hours, over a weekend and learned so much about him and his life, which I then used to write a semi-fictional piece which was the equivalent of my end-of-module exam. It can’t have been that bad, because I passed!
And, after all that, he was kind enough to share with me one last big adventure. When he was invited to the Riverside Stadium to celebrate his 100th birthday as a guest of Middlesbrough FC, he grudgingly let me tag along… but only on the conditions that Craig got to go (as he’s a massive Boro fan) and that Lilly would be his plus one!
We’re not really saying ‘goodbye’ to Norman, it’s more of an au revoir. No, scratch that; he spent so much time in Italy over the course of his life, we’re probably saying ciao. He’ll still be with us when we need him; we all have our memories of him and his little jokes, his mannerisms and sayings. I’ll especially think of him on a Sunday afternoon; I’d always try to ring him on a Sunday. And I’ll smile. I hope that when you think of Norman, you’ll smile too, because of all the things he did in an incredible life, the one thing he did most of all was spread love and happiness.